Generally speaking, spring in Turkey means pretty good weather, but even in a place as great as Turkey spring can still mean lots of rain. Our last trip brought us to Osmaniye, a province in one of the nations sunniest and hottest regions. This time around, with snow in the forecast for everywhere else we wanted to go, we decided to head back to the same region and visit one of the most unique provinces in the country: Antakya.
The province of Antakya (also known as Hatay and best known as Antioch in English) hangs south along the Mediterranean coast like some unsightly growth from the bulk of Turkey. Geographically, culturally, and even in terms of language it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the country. Only, in this case, it’s precisely this different-ness that makes it so special and worth visiting (I’ll get to some of those differences later).
We flew into Hatay Airport with low expectations regarding weather as uncle Google (as some in Turkey refer to the search engine) had told us to expect nothing but rain for our whole stay. Antakya had had so much rain in fact that the airport had turned into a small island in the middle of a vast lake where there was normally a wide green valley of farmland. Despite the gloomy forecast we had heat and sunshine as we drove all the way to the southern coastal town of Samandağ where we went to visit the rather picturesque Vespasianus Titus Tunnel which (for obvious reasons) is usually just called Titus Tunnel.
My son’s name is Titus, so he was pleased to hear that he had a tunnel, hotel, and a couple cafes named after him! The tunnel and channel system were built 1900 years ago to protect the city from floodwaters by diverting it as well as keep the harbour from silting up. While silting may not seem like an existential threat it was the demise of some great historical cities.
After checking out Titus Tunnel and some of the surrounding sights we went into the rather dusty and unattractive town of Samandağ. Despite being situated right along a beautiful stretch of sandy Mediterranean coastline, Samandağ is a pretty dirty run-down place. With the Syrian border only 15 km’s away, the town has suffered from a major drop in tourism thanks to the instability and a lack of Syrian tourists. What struck us most of all though was that we couldn’t understand most of the conversation going on around us! Over Arab style durum (A type wrap with meat in it) we found out that most people in Samandağ actually speak Arabic at home and only learn Turkish at school or if the happen to interact with some of the many other people groups that call the province of Antakya home.
This is a major aspect of what makes Antakya so special though. Antakya, called Antioch in English, is the place where the name “Christian” was first coined and is referred to as the Cradle of Christianity. Today the population of Antakya still has a large Christian community of Arabs, Greeks, and Armenians with their own languages and traditions. In the Muslim communities you’ll have various sects of Sunnis and Shias from Arab, Kurdish, and Turkish backgrounds. In the middle of this you’ll find a handful of Jewish synagogues belonging to a community that has been a part of this city for thousands of years.
This mixed-ness was a constant source of pride for locals. The fact that these different groups could live peacefully together was brought up by many of the people we met as the reason why Antakya was Turkey’s best city. The Crescent Moon, the Cross, and the Star of David were regularly used on city signs and wall art everywhere.
All along the coast near the town of Samandağ is a beautifully long stretch of sand that locals say is the second longest beach in the world. As far as I’ve been able to find out this claim is utterly false. the length of the sandy stretch is an impressive 13 kms but doesn’t even come close to the world record holders. Turks tendency to claim everything in Turkey as the worlds largest, best, fastest etc. caused me to become rather cynical.
Following an evening on the beach watching hundreds of migrating cranes and chatting with some ill-lucked fisherman we got an early start on a damp morning to visit the mountaintop monastery of St Simeon the Stylite. The monastery is in ruins, but you can make out a great deal of the buildings and the view is also quite impressive. The hill has been covered with giant wind turbines and so the air was filled with a constant whooshing noise from the giant, rotating arms that were in every direction.
The monastery commemorates Simeon, a monk of a particularly unique tradition: that of the Stylites. A stylite is one who lives atop a tower or pillar to seek seclusion for prayer and meditation. The Simeon that this monastery is named after (as opposed to the first stylilte, also named Simeon, or Simeon the stylite III who came later. Simeons are rather over represented in the stylite community) is said to have began his monastic life on a pillar before losing his first tooth and lived atop pillars for 68 years! You can see the base of his pillar in the centre of the monastery ruins.
In the city centre we stopped in for one of Antakya’s most famous foods; Künefe! When I describe it in a moment it’s not going to sound very good, but trust me, it’s actually great. Künefe is a desert made of thin noodle-like pastry with a heavy layer of cheese in the middle. The pastry and cheese are cooked and soaked in syrup then topped with clotted cream (or sometimes ice cream) and ground pistachio. Don’t tell the Turks this but it’s actually an Arab dessert and its only connection to Antakya is that Antakya is full of Arabs. Whoever it belongs to, this strange blend of cheese and sugary goodness is delicious and if you’re thinking to try it, Antakya is absolutely Turkey’s best place to give it a taste.
The next day the grim weather forecasts given by Uncle Google finally proved true and we had grey skies and frequent downpours, a perfect day for some sightseeing indoors. We started off with a trip to the seaside town of Payas. A not-so-touristic steel mill town full of rail yards and smokestacks. But long before the industry came to Payas a beautiful castle complete with a neighboring caravanserai was built to protect and serve caravans and shipping in the area. The historical complex had changed a lot since I last visited a few years ago, with local government having set up office in the old stone rooms and courtyards. While most places like this would usually be utterly empty, this one was filled with the bustle of people in business suits hurrying about doing whatever municipal government actually does.
The old hall of the caravanserai was filled with shops and cafes where we stopped for lunch while the shopkeeper (who claimed to be an animal lover) attempted to chase the begging cats away from us. In Turkey people tend to let cats do anything and go anywhere. There’s a clip of a fashion show in Istanbul where a cat plops itself down on the catwalk (puns) and gives itself a lick while the models try to avoid it. So when this shop keeper started full on kicking cats and hitting them with brooms we weren’t surprised when everyone else started to get visibly upset. I think they were joking though when they said they were going to file a complaint with the police.
Over the last number of months I have been attempting to track down some of Turkey’s iconic soap makers. When we were traveling in Osmaniye we attempted and failed to find them there. What people in Osmaniye told us was to look in Antakya which is famous for its laurel soaps. So abandoning the more conventional sights one rainy afternoon we decided to comb the industrial parks to see what we could find. We found nothing on the first few attempts until, just as we were giving up, we came across a soap seller who had actual information on a soap factory not too far away and got us access for the next day.
Work at a soap factory begins at five AM and, wanting to catch the whole process we got to the factory at 645 AM. We quickly realized that there was absolutely no rush. Turns out that the process at this factory is to make dozens of small batches all throughout the day rather than one huge batch that covers the entire floor of the factory. The Other thing we realized is that the process here was very different than the classic images that I had in mind. The difference is down to the amount of water used in the soap batter. The process in Antakya uses less water which means that drying times are very short allowing for quicker processing and a constant turnover of small batches. As the soap dries quickly there’s no need to build those picturesque rings of soap like they do in other places. The process that I’m looking for is apparently more common in Syria, Lebanon etc. as well as in the Turkish province of Gaziantep. The search continues.
When we left the soap factory there was a break in the rain so we thought we’d attempt a visit to the nearby Bakras Castle. Climbing higher and higher we eventually caught sight of the castle as thick clouds began rolling over the mountain tops. Bakras Castle was a real surprise. Even after visiting eight castles on our trip to Osmaniye last month, Bakras had an incredibly mysterious feel with a maze-like set of tunnels and pitch black passages. There doesn’t even seem to be a proper entrance, we just had to climb up the side through a collapsed section.
By the time we were done the rains had returned, I had slipped and lost a lens cap and we were totally soaked. From the castle we went to the mall to get changed. As bathroom floors tend to be quite wet in Turkey, this turned out to be easier said than done.
Back in the old city of Antakya, we had one more stop we needed to make; Affan Café, home of Haytalı, one of the weirdest desserts I’ve had. The Affan Café sits on Istiklal street, which, in ancient times was the first street in the world to have street lights. The café, though not over 2000 years old, is a classic Turkish café, specifically a Kıraathane, a coffee house for old men to play cards and other games over an endless stream of cigarettes and tea. Affan isn’t a normal kıraathane though. Unlike most kıraathanes, Affan Café is quite popular with young people and families who come to try the cafes signature dish of Haytalı.
Haytalı is yet another Arab origin dish brought by the grandfather of the current owner from Beirut little over eighty years ago. When chatting with the owner he explained how his grandfather took the classic recipe and made a couple of alterations to make this famous variant. Haytalı is made of three parts. The first is a bed of pudding/Jell-O, then a few scoops of the cafés own ice cream. Then the bowl is topped off with a neon pink syrup of sweetened rose water (disconcertingly the hand soap in the bathroom was exactly the same colour). Back in Beirut Haytalı has become quite hard to find and instead of the bright pink rosewater they pour a sweetened milk on it.
While I can’t exactly say that I loved it (rosewater tastes like perfume or soap to me and Jell-O is weird) you can’t come to Antakya without having tried it! And compared to the brains I tried in Antep (horrible) Haytalı was positively delicious!
Up to this point the trip had gone great, we saw some great stuff, met a ton of new people, visited some old friends, and tried a few new foods. Unfortunately, the last 20 minutes didn’t go quite so smoothly.
Before leaving for the airport we went to a friends place to say goodbye and pick up a couple of kilos of food for my family and to deliver to some friends back in Istanbul (2 Pepsi bottles of olives, one water bottle of molasses, a small bag of salt, and bags and bags of flatbreads and meat if you’re curious). As goodbyes are no short affair in Turkey, we, rather predictably, ended up leaving late to the airport and in the rush I forgot my phone AND showed some pretty poor gratitude to our hosts by rear-ending their car! Then, just to top it off I stole some girl’s airplane ticket during security. I have no idea how it happened but when I pulled my ticket out of my pocket, I realized it wasn’t mine at all!
Thankfully we were flying Pegasus Airlines which is always late and we didn’t end up missing our flight home! Hopefully I can get through the next trip without making myself look like an idiot!